After Jayson Williams, few surprises

The potential punishment, technically, was real and hard prison time, four years to life. The closest thing to a sentence, in reality, was eight sentences for No. 8, containing 191 words.

With a three-paragraph apology to the young woman who accused him of rape, read in court by his lawyer, Kobe Bryant walked free Wednesday. He can now return to Lakerland with new burdens, like trying to win without Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson, because these charges that admittedly once "terrified" Bryant can never be raised against him again.

Not that many of Kobe's peers in the NBA world will be terribly surprised by the outcome.

The timing of the Kobegate ending might have been stunning to some, coming less than a week before the scheduled start of opening statements, but there has been a growing sense around the league all summer that our yearlong obsession would not make it to trial. What else to think, after so many whispers about the accuser's resolve weakening? What else for NBA types to think, after the Jayson Williams case?

Testimony in Williams' trial showed that the former Net handled the shotgun that killed a limousine driver, and that Williams could be heard saying "my life is over" ... and he was found not guilty of manslaughter. The State of Colorado vs. Kobe Bean Bryant was a he-said, she-said situation with nowhere near as much evidence as Williams faced. Bryant's case was bound over to trial in October by a judge, Frederick Gannett, who openly chastised the prosecution for having a weak case.

That case only grew weaker as the months passed, before finally melting this summer. A line of unconcerned teams proved how weak it was by queuing up July 1, begging for Bryant to invite them to California to make their free-agent pitches. I don't remember a single suitor worrying that they might be offering a maximum chunk of salary-cap space to a guy who might not be available come October.

Those suitors included Colorado's NBA team, don't forget.

"[Bryant's legal situation] wasn't something that you focused on," Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said of the Nuggets making the short list of free-agent destinations Bryant considered.

"You focused on what a good basketball player Kobe was. If you have cap room and you have the chance to go after a player like Kobe Bryant, you need to. You owe it to your team to try."

Vandeweghe added that the legal experts consulted by the Nuggets offered "strong indications that this [case] was going to be dismissed." The Lakers, as you can imagine, had even stronger indications that their worst fears would never be realized, or else they wouldn't have been willing to sever ties with Jackson and then deal O'Neal to Miami before getting Bryant's assurance that he would accept L.A.'s $136 million for the next seven years.

That mega-contract, incidentally, would not have been voided if Kobegate climaxed with a conviction and a prison sentence as opposed to an apology. The Lakers, in that worst case, would have undoubtedly suspended Bryant without pay and waited as long as they had to for his reinstatement, thus retaining his rights.

The Lakers and their Face of the Franchise instead proceed directly into a new era, and you can be sure that Bryant gleefully welcomes all the challenges it brings. This is a player, remember, who averaged better than 30 points in the five games last season -- five Laker victories -- when he had to fly to and from an Eagle County court appearance in time to rejoin his teammates for a game that night. He'll be thrilled to confront whatever's next.

And there will be plenty of challenges, even if the accuser's civil suit melts away as well. Bryant has a personal life to rebuild ... and a muted marketing presence to revive ... and a storied organization to carry after two-thirds of the Lakers' championship triangle was hacked away.

But ...

He'll embrace it all, even though it means he'll have to play better than he ever has before to keep the Lakers where they've been. Even though he's in for another serious backlash if the Shaq-less Lakers fall from the elite, as many expect.

He'll embrace it all because the past 14 months, from that unforgettable press conference at Staples Center to his eight-sentence farewell to Eagle County and the roller-coaster season in between, were a lot harder than they looked for No. 8.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.